Archive | May, 2013

Cannes confessions, #2: the name’s Wiffen; Paul Wiffen

17 May
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Paul Wiffen (left), Tony Errico (centre), and Spy Fail actress Victoria George-Veale

Glorious glamorous beach-side Cannes hasn’t totally worked out that way. True, I haven’t seen so many dinner jackets since watching March of the Penguins. They were even in the McDonald’s opposite the Palais. (Before you sneer at me for eating there on my first night, I did order a Royal With Cheese in deference to former Palme D’Or winner Pulp Fiction.)

But the first night was a wash-out – a Biblical downpour that not even the heat generated by Leo DiCaprio’s smile could ward off. Read more about that in my article for the IBT, here. It’s also taken me two days to get the internet working in this apartment, which is a good deal further from the Palais than advertised (everywhere, apparently is “15 minutes from the Palais”); plus Google maps didn’t warn me about the incredibly steep hill. Thank god I’m not wearing heels.

Yesterday was a bit more on track: after filing my article for the International Business Times, we fit in a couple of afternoon parties in the marquees behind the Palais. The first, at the Russian Pavilion, earned black marks for refusing to open the bar until the end of loooong, barely audible speeches in Russian. The second, in honour of the Locarno Film Festival, required some blagging to get into. Tony Errico, whose short film Colonel Badd I helped write, is Swiss, which helped; I played the Press card. They didn’t seem too fussed as long as you looked the part. For me, gold shoes, white trousers, white Clements Ribeiro jacket, and always the Philip Treacy Elvis hat.

When you’re hanging around critics and journalists at Cannes, as I was in 1997, the talk is all what movies have you seen? When you’re hanging out with film-makers, it’s all what movies have you got coming up next? Tony and I spent some time with Paul Wiffen, co-director of a Bond spoof premiering in Cannes on Tuesday called The Pink Marble Egg, with a sequel, Spy Fail, shooting shortly. He cuts a dashing figure with his white lieutenant’s hat and bevy of spy girls. It’s his 17th Cannes, he seems to know everyone, and he’s always the Man with the Plan: which parties to go to, how to score the best screenings.

He had tickets to the Ozon film Young & Beautiful, in the balcony – or “balcon”, as the French has it, which caused some ribbing from his friends. (“Balcon” is the more elegant French slang for what the Americans call “rack”. So “Il y a du monde au balcon” – literally, “there’s quite a crowd on the balcony” – well, you can work that out for yourselves.) Paul has a master’s in languages from Oxford, and switches effortlessly from French to German to Italian. He’s also a master delegator: this person to carry that bag, take this picture, call that person – whatever gets the job done, but always with a kind word.

It’s a salutary lesson that it takes a certain personality to be a director. Camera angles etc, yes, that’s all well and good. But you chiefly have to be a leader of men, a marshaller of resources, a smoother of egos, a tireless cheerleader when things are going wrong.

More Cannes confessions tomorrow… NOW POSTED: how Troma Occupy Cannes

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Cannes confessions, #1: top tips for festival virgins

16 May

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The sun has finally burst through the clouds, and I’m sitting writing this by a pool on a hill with a view of the white-walled town and the deep blue sea. Yes, you can be jealous now, because I’ve finally made it back to Cannes for the Film Festival.

The last time I was here, it was 1997 and I was Editor of Time Out, with VIP access to all the most glamorous parties. It’s a great story, and I’ve just written about the highlights, plus an account of last night’s star-studded opening gala, for the International Business Timeshere — you should definitely read that first.

Now I’m in Cannes as a film-maker, with Colonel Badd, a short comedy I co-wrote with the director Tony Errico, accepted into the Short Film Corner. (More about Colonel Badd, which takes the form of an interview with a retired supervillain, here.)

Cannes is a crazy, wonderful, chaotic festival which every aspiring film-maker should experience at least once. I had very little clue how it worked before I rocked up yesterday. But I’m learning fast. Here are my top tips so far:

— Accommodation. I found a terrific two-bed flat near the Palais for £800 a week. Cheap by festival standards, when prices triple, but not so stupidly cheap as to be suspicious. I discovered too late I’d been scammed. Police and banks alerted (gosh they move slowly in a crisis), but money I think irrecoverable. The next cheap flat I found, for which I was also asked for a bank transfer, I Googled the owner, found her office number, and talked to her secretary to make sure. Top tip: Book very early (or very late) for the best deals; find flatmates to book an apartment or house with rather than get a hotel; try to be within walking distance of the Palais.

— Transport. Flying is cheaper than the train, but the coach from Nice to Cannes is a nightmare. Three times as many people as there are seats crowd into a disorderly queue. You’d think they might put on more than the usual half-hourly coach on the opening day of the festival, but no; everything in France is “réglementaire”, by the book, whether or not it makes sense. In my desperation to get to the Palais before accreditation shut I overcame the problem, I am ashamed to admit, by jumping the queue. And even then I had to plead with the driver in French that my “compagnons de voyage” were already inside, as they wouldn’t let me on with luggage. Top tip: don’t queue by the bus doors; go round the side and get your bags in the hold sharpish. The driver calls for people with stored bags to get on first.

— Accreditation. Cannes operates on a complex system of colour codes and badges, with access to certain areas and screenings and not others depending on your status. Without accreditation, all you can do is chat to people in bars. Top tip: Make a short film and submit it to the Court Métrage/Short Film Corner, and they give you two accreditations. Thank you Tony Errico for mine.

— Screenings. This works on a points system. They started me off with 100 points, plus I get 2 extra points for every hour spent in Cannes, like a casino loyalty programme. Popular screenings at popular times cost 100 points; others cost 50 or even 30. It actually makes a strange kind of sense. Until I discover that Tony Errico, as producer, gets none. Go figure. Top tip: You usually book from computer terminals inside the Palais, but now they also offer an app that lets you book from your iPhone or similar. You can only book 24 hours in advance.

And that’s enough for now. Right, I’m off to see where this wild ride will take me… Click here for my second despatch from Cannes. Plus photo-gallery here.

S**t happens: the coincidence of the new Audi ad and the remarkably similar short

15 May

I’d like to show you an amazing coincidence. A coincidence so astounding that you could stick a beard on it and tour it round the country in a freak show. In fact, forget the beard; it’s freaky enough on its own.

Take a look at the new TV ad for the Audi SQ5, above. Then take a look at the minute-long 2011 art short No 26 To Hackney, by fashion photographer turned film-maker Ben Charles Edwards (below).

 

See what I mean? Freaky! To the untrained eye, it gives kind of a déjà vu.

A glamorous woman walks down a dimly lit street: in slow motion, to nonchalant music at odds with the drama about to unfold, her heel breaks; her handbag falls; she falls with it; there’s a close-up on her handbag as its contents spill to the unforgiving pavement; the woman is left sprawled on the cold hard ground.

There is a key difference between the two: the ending. At the close of the ad, a gleaming Audi drives off leaving the hapless pedestrian stranded, whereas at the end of the short film it’s the more prosaic No 26 bus to Hackney.

Oh, and in the short, the woman’s face ends up pressed into a pile of dog shit. That’s not in the TV ad.

I know that film-making coincidences happen. My own premise for a sci-fi movie turned up years later as Looper (see here). Animal Charm, which I co-wrote with Ben, featured terrorist babes in balaclavas, just like Spring Breakers (see here). But this seems a bigger one. The first Ben heard of it was when his mother texted him to say “Congrats on the Audi ad!” Knowing his short film, she had assumed the ad she’d just watched on television was his doing.

So I wondered if there might be some connection between the two, if Ben’s film inspired the ad in some way. I phoned the ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, who told me to phone Audi’s PR agency, who told me they would look into it and have an answer later that day. By evening they still couldn’t quite give me a definite answer: “So sorry I haven’t got back to you today. Just checking out the story but at this stage I think it is just a coincidence but I am just waiting confirmation.”

The next day, ie yesterday, I got my response, from Richard Stainer, Client Services Director of BBH. And it is categorical: “BBH was not aware of the short film of Ben Charles Edwards. While there are points of comparison in content (like the broken heel and the dropped bag), the Audi SQ5 story is original material. As an agency, we pride ourselves on creative originality and we take any claims suggesting otherwise very seriously.”

So there it is. An amazing coincidence.

I’m glad it turns out to be a coincidence, though. Not just because amazing coincidences are fun to gawp at, like a wedding ring lost at sea that shows up years later on someone’s dinner plate, inside a fish. But because it would be rather embarrassing all round if it weren’t. No top British ad agency would want to use emerging film-makers as a cheap source of inspiration. And no manufacturer of superlative cars would want customers to be viewing their ad, while all the while thinking of dogshit.

Come back for my daily reports from the Cannes Film festival, starting tomorrow!

The Cumberbatch tapes, #4: Spielberg v. Madonna

11 May

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This is the final part of my interview with Benedict Cumberbatch, told as far as possible in his own words. You can read part one here, part two here, part three here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here.

On how he got the part in War Horse (above): “I got told that Steven Spielberg was a fan of my work! And that was just… I mean I can’t say it without laughing. I made one of the archetypal actor’s jokes when someone said Oh you must be having a break after this because you’ve just come straight from Sherlock to this play, and I said yeah, I’m going to definitely have a two-week break – unless Spielberg calls! And then Spielberg did actually call! I had to read the script, sign a confidentiality agreement, and that was it, he gave me the part.”

…And how he didn’t work with Madonna: “There’s another rather famous woman, who will remain nameless, she’s doing a film at the moment [putting two and two together, that woman was Madonna and the film was her directorial debut,W.E.], who demanded almost a dress rehearsal with her operating the camera. And, er, being an actor you jump through the hoops, and I came out going Wow… the difference between a confident director who knows what he’s doing and someone who hasn’t got a f***ing clue is just miles.”

On Doctor Who: For once, Benedict was reluctant to talk. When he finally came out with it, it was as though imparting some great State Secret. Matt Smith had recently taken over from David Tennant as Doctor Who, and I wondered, had Benedict ever been considered for the role? Long pause, then: “Possibly yes.”

That and Sherlock are quite similar roles, in some ways, I probed. “Aaaaaah… possibly. Well. The idea of Sherlock came along before David’s recasting, we did the pilot over a year ago, that was just about when David was going to announce he was going to stand down. And David and I talked about it, but to be honest, it had to be radically different from him, and I’m not sure I’m interested in doing something… you haven’t seen Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century before, and that was much more appetising. And Doctor Who is a ‘Bond role’ in the sense that each incarnation puts his own stamp on it, but I didn’t really like the whole package, I didn’t want to be doing school lunchboxes, I didn’t want to be known for that and nothing else.”

On meeting former Tory leader William Hague to prepare for the role of William Pitt the Younger: “It was great, a real privilege, I went to see where Pitt would have stood in the Chambers, I went to dinner with William Hague and talked about his book [about William Pitt], it was a fantastic evening, really special.”

Hague seemed too young to be a plausible leader at the time, I say. “Like a precocious Mekon, wasn’t he, like a possessed child. But he’s charismatic, very intelligent, very good company – he’s fit, focused, he doesn’t talk down to you, a very smart man. I’d like to see more of him, especially now he’s Foreign Secretary, it’s a great role for him. It is absolutely intoxicating being in the House of Commons, there’s such a feeling of power about the place.”

Finally, what does he think of Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes? “I really enjoyed it, it’s fantastic, he’s an extraordinary actor… but it’s really not Sherlock in my mind. He’s not Sherlock, he’s Robert Downey Jr!”

I’ve had some great feedback on Twitter (@DominicFilm if you want to Follow me) regarding this interview series. Benedict is lucky to have so many appreciative fans! Thank you, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. Come back next week, when I will be reporting from the Cannes Film Festival.

The Cumberbatch tapes, #3: The spirituality of acting

10 May

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Star Trek Into Darkness is wonderful, but though it’s a terrific ensemble piece, one actor stands out: Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays a villain with slightly superhuman powers, but it’s not so much the newly buff body and the action scenes that impress: it’s the stillness and calm he evinces before the storm.

In my in-depth interview with him, he explained where this stillness comes from. What follows, entirely in Benedict’s own words, is part three; read part one here, part two here, and my review of Star Trek Into Darkness here. The story so far: Benedict has been explaining how he taught some Tibetan Buddhist monks in his youth, and how they taught him more than he taught them…

“I also went on a retreat with a lama, several days of incantation to clear the mind and purify, along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks. When you’ve been that still and contemplative, your sensory awareness is so heightened, sharper-focused, you’re taking in detail to the point where you have to pause a little bit, it was amazing.

“Stillness is an essential part of acting, so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand, and I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant. A still point is a very, very hard place to find, especially among the usual kind of pulped sheep pushed around by the blinking flashing world of modern technology. Sherlock Holmes is an interesting character, to get back on to that: he’s someone who has to push a lot aside, either by scraping away badly at a violin or just – there’s ways of shutting out white noise and one of these is he’s so rude to people, saying to shut up all the time…

“And I think there’s a real parallel; I think as an actor you have to be able to do that. I’ve had some pretty knockout moments, like on the press night of a play called The City by Martin Crimp, this phone rang for about five minutes. That took a lot of concentration!”

For the first time in a long while, there is a pause in the flow, followed by a semi-apology, not that one is needed – it’s been fascinating.

“This is a conversation fuelled by coffee, I’m trying to pack a lot in – I don’t speak like this all the time, because I have a relationship with other people that wouldn’t last! Though actually if you spoke to my girlfriend I think she’d say sometimes I do, and that’s why she’s like, ‘Wooooah!’”

The girlfriend was actress Olivia Poulet. Tellingly, a few months after this conversation, they ended their 12-year relationship. (NB: recent rumours of them being married or engaged are a hoax.) Let’s hope it wasn’t just the coffee that did it.

In the fourth and final part of my interview, Benedict discusses Doctor Who, Steven Spielberg, and a famous woman he gallantly doesn’t name (but I know who it is…) NOW ONLINE HERE.

Star Trek Into Darkness – Three words: A. Ma. Zing.

10 May

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Nearly 50 years after Star Trek first aired on television, the new film, Star Trek Into Darkness, feels box-fresh and cutting-edge. I’ve just seen it on opening night in South London’s famous Ritzy cinema, where they served Romulan Ale in the bar and the staff – sorry, crew – dressed in uniform with Starfleet insignia!

The film can be summed up in three words: A. Ma. Zing. It starts with the most thrilling opening sequence since Raiders of the Lost Ark – Kirk dodging spears on an alien planet while Spock is dropped into the boiling heart of a volcano – and then it goes into warp-drive.

I hate reading spoilers myself, so I won’t give away the plot. And anyway what we love about Star Trek is the interplay between the characters, and that’s all here and played to the hilt. The Kirk/Spock bromance? Yup. Each would die for the other. Spock singing The Logical Song? There’s a great exchange between him and an angry superior officer: “That’s just a technicality!” says the officer. “I am Vulcan,” replies Spock calmly. “I embrace technicality.” And, in an argument with Kirk, “Reverting to name-calling suggests you are defensive and therefore find my objections valid.” Maybe you had to be there.

It’s hard to write an ensemble script. Marvel Avengers Assemble managed it (see here); so does Star Trek Into Darkness. Simon Pegg has a bigger, funnier role as Scotty; John Cho as Sulu stands in as Captain for a while; Karl Urban as Bones gets several of his patented “For God’s sake Jim, I’m a doctor, not a missile defuser” lines; and Zoe Saldana’s romance with Spock is now on the rocks. “Really?” says Kirk. “Are you guys fighting?” A pause to consider Spock’s cool logicality. “What’s that even like?”

But the stand-out is Benedict Cumberbatch. He has the stillness and physicality of a Zen Warrior, the deep, slow, sure voice of a man utterly convinced of his ability to “walk over your cold corpses”. He’s already conquered TV with Sherlock, and dipped a toe into Hollywood with War Horse. After this, his phone will be ringing off the hook. He is unquestionably Britain’s next A-list star. See here for my interview with Benedict; part 3 will be posted on Friday.

I said I wouldn’t talk about the plot. Without giving too much away, I will say that just as the ‘60s TV show fostered love and understanding between nations by having Asian, Russian, black (and alien!) crew members working together, women alongside men, so too Star Trek Into Darkness has a moral heart. It is a film about the effects of terrorism. And, with Guantanamo Bay still open and drone attacks causing high civilian “collateral damage”, the message is clear.

“There will always be those who mean to do us harm,” says Kirk at the end. “To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.”

Discover more about Benedict Cumberbatch in my in-depth interview. Click here for part one. Click here for part two. For part three, click here. FINAL PART: click here

The Cumberbatch tapes, #2: My life with Buddhist monks

9 May

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Benedict Cumberbatch is loved, I’m sure, for both his body and his mind. In this extract, he explains how he developed both, from being car-jacked in South Africa to teaching – and learning from – Tibetan Buddhist Monks.

This is part 2 of my in-depth interview; click here to read part one on the birth of Sherlock. The following is an unedited transcript, all in Benedict’s own eloquent words:

“I love the outdoors, throwing myself out of planes, that sort of thing. In South Africa I went a bit nuts, went to the ends of the earth in Namibia and went on an adrenaline junkie thing in Swapismund where they filmed the new series of The Prisoner.

“That was after I got car-jacked, and I think was partly why I went on this adrenaline kick. Because when you’ve been forced to look into the idea that you die on your own you kind of go, ‘Oh, okay, well if I’ve got my own company at the beginning and the end of this life I might as well do a few crazy things with it under my own steam.’

“It was I suppose the polar opposite reaction to becoming agoraphobic and internalised and haunted… there’s enough of that in my work! I didn’t want that small incident in a big country to put me off the beauty of Africa, so I wanted to be part of the people again and not fear them.

“I’d always done slightly crazy things like getting lost on treks in the Himalayas when I was 19. In my gap year I was teaching English to Tibetan Buddhist monks in a Nepali home near Darjeeling.

“They were amazingly warm, intelligent, humorous people. Hard to teach English to. I built a blackboard, which no other previous teachers seem to have done. With 12 monks in a room with an age-range of about 8 to 40, that’s quite important – and the reward-punishment thing of sweets or no sweets, or game or no game, worked quite well. But they taught me a lot more than I could possibly ever teach them.

“They taught me about the simplicity of human nature, but also the humanity of it, and the ridiculous sense of humour you need to live a full spiritual life. There was a time when these two rabid dogs were all over each other, screwing in the back yard, and all of this laughter, ‘Sir, sir, quick, come, sir, sir, quick!’ and these two dogs were just stuck together, having sex, pulling like this, like a Pushmi-pullyu [the two-headed animal in Dr Dolittle], and the monks were just on the floor laughing at these sentient beings’ pain and ridiculousness, two of them a conjoined couple. And it was so funny, they threw water all over them, but before they did, they were like, ‘Kodak moment, sir, Kodak moment!’ Brilliant!

“Then we watched Braveheart, which is a f***ing violent film for Tibetan Buddhist monks to watch, and they were all going ‘wahey!!!’ They saw Scotland as being the oppressed Tibetans and the English as the Chinese.”

PART THREE NOW ONLINE: Benedict Cumberbatch on spirituality… and how the experience feeds into his acting career: click here. PART FOUR NOW ONLINE: on Spielberg vs Madonna, click here. Star Trek Into Darkness review here: “Benedict Cumberbatch is unquestionably Britain’s next A-list star”.